Recently I stumbled across an article that I first read years ago. The piece, by John Ortberg, was entitled “Happy Meal Spirituality;” in it, he notes that the success of the McDonald’s Happy Meal reveals something important about the American consumer psyche:
When you buy your kid a Happy Meal, you’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a toy; you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children they have a little McDonald-shaped vacuum in their souls: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a Happy Meal.” [Christianity Today, May 1993]
Ortberg went on to observe that Happy Meal Spirituality continues with us into adulthood; as we grow older, we need bigger and more expensive Happy Meals in order to be content.
He had the basic concept right, of course. But I’ve often thought that the fast-food purveyor with the keenest insight into the mind of the American consumer was not McDonald’s, but Burger King. The jingle that BK adopted in the seventies was laid aside for a while, but my generation still knows the words:
Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce; special orders don’t upset us.
All we ask is that you let us serve it your way:
Have it your way, have it your way.
Have it your way at Burger King.
Who can deny that what we really want is to have everything our way? It seems to me that the spirit of “have it your way” is thriving in American church life.
In the 1990’s, a Reformed pastor in a large city told me that when church shoppers called him to inquire about his congregation, their questions were invariably demographic: How many young singles do you have? Is there a youth group; how big is it? Are there young children? Do you have people in their fifties? More recently, a friend who is an urban church planter has blogged about how often he’s tempted to behave like a car salesman.
American Evangelicals often expect a church to meet their perceived needs. A term of art has even been invented to describe an approach that focuses on ensuring that newcomers will have a church experience that will make them come back for more: the attractional church model.
It stands to reason that a Christian church should want to be attractive to people who are hungry and thirsty for spiritual life. But if attraction itself is the goal, all of a church’s priorities must shift to accommodate that goal. Unless what we want is always what we need, that shift spells trouble.
This idea of focusing on attraction comes to my mind whenever I receive a promotional postcard from a particular church in my area. Invariably, these invitations are peppered with testimonials from people who have visited the church. One of the first cards I received bore the prominent quote, “I never knew church could be so much fun!” Good marketers pitch themselves to the kind of people they want to attract. In our culture, the consumer is king; the church that wants to market itself successfully will be tempted to let people have it their way.
Most Reformed folk agree, in principle, that we don’t believe that a church should focus on “letting us have it our way.” Yet I suspect that being Reformed is not enough to immunize us against the infectious consumer spirit. Burger King spirituality may be more vital among us than we’d like to admit.
Years ago, another pastor told me about one of his trials in the pastorate. A family in his church was constantly dissatisfied with the way he dressed in the pulpit. Mind you, he wasn’t preaching in overalls; he wore nice suits and ties. But these folks were thoroughly convinced that preaching ought to be done in a proper Geneva gown, and they pressed the issue. Having a good preacher and a faithful shepherd may not have been enough for them to feel that they were really having church their way.
It would be nice if this sort of thing were unusual, but it’s really not hard to find refined tastes in Reformed circles. For example, for some of us, if a minister’s sermon output does not consist of expository, lectio continua preaching, his preaching is automatically deemed substandard. Of course, if we had lived in a different era, that rule would have forced us to strike men like C.H. Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards off our “good preacher” list, but – at least we have standards.
For others, a church is simply unacceptable if it lacks weekly communion, or uses communion bread that’s leavened, or fails to use the “right” Bible translation (whichever that may be). I once met a Reformed gentleman who gave a thumbs-down to any church whose pew Bibles contained footnotes. Some insist that all the children in a truly faithful church must be home-schooled, while others cannot abide a church unless it’s committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith without the “American” alterations.
To be sure, Reformed versions of “having it your way” usually have a theological orientation rather than a demographic one. If the issue were simply one of insisting that a church must be theologically sound, one could hardly question that. But it’s too easy to slip from that into defining “the Biblical church” with criteria that fail to rise above the level of personal preferences. Is there really such a big difference between demanding that a church provide me with a specific social environment and demanding that a church must add my likes and dislikes to its unwritten articles of faith? In both cases, it seems, I just want to have it my way. [ 1 ]
A friend has coined the term “Reformed Maximalism” to describe good confessional Reformed folk who have slipped into a mindset which insists that there is only one right way to do everything. One of my favorite preachers, Edward Donnelly, once put it this way:
“Surely we don’t believe there is a party line for good RPs to toe on every conceivable matter…. For some people today…there are no doubtful things; there are absolutely no ambiguities whatsoever: there’s true and there’s false, there’s black and there’s white,…there’s your way and there’s the Lord’s way…. But Paul could write about doubtful things (Romans 14:1)…Paul, why do you not just answer everything? Why do you not just give us a list of everything that we have to believe and do and then there will be no argument and no division? Paul says,’No!’ Apparently, it’s important to work through issues, to have a variety of views, and to live and let live. I’m not talking about our theology….if we’re not solid on our theology, we just get into a jungle of confusion and suspicion. But friends, there are many areas where there are legitimate differences of opinion.”
– Edward Donnelly, “Called to Freedom” (sermon on Galatians 5:1-16)
There’s a strong temptation to deny the existence of doubtful things; after all, why wouldn’t every right-thinking individual just agree with me?
American consumerism encourages this sort of behavior, even in the church. We’re able to be picky eaters because we live in an ecclesiastical food court. In much of our nation, we can select from a smorgasbord of choices. Moreover, if you can’t find a church that suits you, start your own, with exactly the combination of distinct qualities that will make you happy. Have it your way!
It seems strange that this sort of problem can even plague churches that are (on paper, at least) confessional. A confession of faith is supposed to be a statement of essential doctrines on which we agree. By implication, matters outside the bounds of a confession are things about which we are content to tolerate differences of opinion. Yet in practice, such contentment can be elusive. In our church lives, as in the rest of life, we want to have it our way.
Is it possible to be content in churches that don’t cater to our preferences? If we are not to succumb to Burger King Spirituality, we must be able to discern the difference between essentials and non-essentials. Without such distinctions, every issue is equally important, and anyone who does not cut the cake exactly the way I do must be suspect.
The ability to distinguish between essential and non-essential matters is one of the evidences of spiritual maturity. When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he chided some of the believers there for their spiritual childishness:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
In their zeal to establish pre-eminence over one another, there were those in Corinth who were dividing the church by declaring their opposition to any who were not aligned with the “right” teacher:
Paul proved his accusation that the Corinthians were worldly and immature. He offered as evidence their jealousy and quarreling. The Corinthians had divided themselves into quarreling parties, employing the pretenses of human arrogance and worldly wisdom to fight one another. This behavior revealed that they lived by the principles of the world rather than by the teaching of the Spirit. They acted like mere men, not like people in Christ who had the Holy Spirit.
Pratt, R. L., Jr. (2000). Vol. 7: I & II Corinthians. Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference (47). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
When we insist on making minor matters into badges of spiritual superiority, we look a lot like the immature Corinthians to whom Paul wrote. Burger King Spirituality can disguise itself as a holy zeal in which “doubtful things” are transformed into articles upon which the church must stand or fall.
May the Lord deliver us from the constant temptation to distort the things we simply like into rules of faith and life.
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(1) I should note that I have sprinkled some of my own preferences in among these examples; those who know me well enough will be able to figure out which these are.